Monday, September 10, 2012
"One Human Family" Sermon
Though we come to if from different angles, in this faith community we agree on one thing. That is the interconnection of our lives. For many Unitarian Universalists their religious faith leads them to an awareness of deep relationship. Others understand interconnection as an ecological concern, as a calling to care for our planet. The wording of our Seventh Principle leaves the door open to all of those powerful interpretations of connectedness. We covenant to affirm and promote the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
Sometimes that web can be difficult to see. Sometimes we have to think about it, but imagination can help. One of the best ways to see our interconnection is simply imagining what it might be like to be another person. After so many years living in our bodies, coming from where we do, knowing what we know, liking the things that we like, it can be difficult to imagine what life might be like as another person. It’s easy to get trapped inside our self, as if this is the only way of living in the world. But keep in mind there are about 6.7 Billion people on this planet who have lived life differently from you. Your way is not the only way. It’s difficult to do, but if we take a moment, just a brief moment to step outside of our own experience to see the world from a different perspective, we become aware of the deeper truth.
Some of you may remember me sharing my story of reconnecting with my biological family a couple of years ago. I want to summarize some of that experience for you, and what I learned about seeing things from another perspective. To make a very long story much shorter, I was adopted as an infant. About six years ago I was contacted by my birth parents. It was a slow and tenuous relationship at first. Through several letters, emails, and eventually phone calls, I got to know them.
I say them, because as it turns out, my biological parents were high-school sweethearts when I was born. They ended up married with two children. That’s the very rough shell of the story. It’s necessary to explain that this family that I am biologically related to, a family that I never knew existed for 28 years, carves out a bizarre picture of what my life very easily could have been. This family lives in a very rural part of Arkansas. Like most of their family and neighbors, they are Baptists. They have been in that area of Arkansas for at least three generations, and their children are still there, with no interest in leaving. My life story however, has been very, very different.
What might my life have been like in these circumstances? Who would I be today? Seeing this alternate universe that I could have lived in makes me very aware that I could be a different person today. It becomes very easy to imagine living the life of someone else, when that possibility is right before your eyes. This is my story, but I’m sure each of your lives has been filled with different coincidences and decisions made for you that have made you who you are today.
To understand our deep interconnection, a good first step is realizing that the lives that we know as our own, could very easily have been different. They could be more like the lives of other people, even people that we disagree with.
But the concept of one human family goes far beyond metaphors and what ifs. It’s rooted in science. We hear more and more every day about how the future well-being of our planet is in peril. What is more, we are all in it together, because the resources of the Earth are not static, the pollution that we create affects people on the other side of the globe and vise versa. We know we are ecologically connected and we are slowly realizing that we are called to act upon the situation.
What’s more, we are all way more genetically related than some would have us believe, especially when talking about racial groups.
Evidence from the analyzing DNA shows that the vast majority of physical variation, about 94%, lies within so-called racial groups. Conventional ideas of "racial" groupings differ from one another only in about 6% of their genes. That means that there is greater variation within any one "racial" group than between different “races.” Overwhelmingly, scientific study indicates that what we understand as “racial” categories, have no meaningful genetic reality. (1998 Statement on Race from the American Anthropoligcal Society)
But if racial categories are socially constructed, if there is no basis for them in reality, it makes me wonder how many other differences that we see between ourselves and other people are less significant than we may think.
I want to tell you a little bit more about my story and understanding the network of mutuality. Eventually, I had my first in person encounter with my birth family, the family of an alternate universe in which I could have lived. We had exchanged several letters and talked on the phone a few times. We exchanged pictures and health information.
Finally, it was just time to bite the bullet and meet in person. I didn’t have any expectations going into the meeting. I had done that before, with the first letter, and then the first phone conversation. What do I say? Will we have anything to talk about? What do I call them? Most of all, how am I supposed to do this. There’s no road map. Anyway, I had been through all that, so I decided that meeting them, simply being in the same space together would be enough of an accomplishment. The rest would take care of itself.
Well, being in the same space was a big step. It was a much stranger step than I ever expected. The first thing that I said when we drove up to the restaurant where my biological family was sitting outside was, “Oh my God, I have a twin.” I don’t of course have a twin, but one of these brothers looked so much like me it was shocking.
I could tell he felt very awkward as well. It was the strangest thing, really straight out of the old movie the “Parent Trap.” I was having lunch with someone who looked exactly like me. He was talking, but that wasn’t my mouth over there moving. I’m here, he’s there, but that looks like me. It was the strangest sensations I have ever experienced in my life. Having never in my life seen another person who was genetically related to me, suddenly I was confronted with a near twin.
Mixing up a sense of your identity in relationship to another person is a very strange and disorienting thing. Seeing someone who looks exactly like you speak words that are not your own is a very, very strange thing. But disorientation isn’t always such a bad thing. Often, it’s the only way we can get out of a rut, the only way to see beyond ourselves. To learn new things, we often have to leave the comfort of the known. A moment of disorientation is often the path to deeper insight.
That’s my hope for us as a community. I invite you for just a moment to imagine transcending your own life experience. Maybe it helps you to remember that the circumstances that have constructed your life are largely coincidence. You could have been born to different parents, or in a different country, of a different gender or racial category. Or if you are of a more scientific mind, remember that your genes, the building blocks of your body are incredibly similar to every other human on this earth. Remember that their eyes work the same way yours do. What might it be like to look at the world through their eyes for just a moment.
We believe that there is a interdependent web of existence that connects us to each other, and to every piece of the universe. We believe there is a Unity that makes us one. But sometimes, our beliefs, our ideals, get more complicated when we try to live our lives on the ground. When we come into communities our ideals find hard edges.
I am reminded of story about the blind men and the elephant. And we here at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Laguna Beach have an elephant before us. Several of us have reached out, and we have gotten a sense that something is there, something very big, something that can’t be ignored. There is an elephant that has been here for quite a long time.
Most recently, some of us have reached out into the darkness. Brushing up against that great big elephant leg, we felt a tree, a flowering pear tree to be exact. We reached out and felt a tree in our midst and we had very different opinions of what that tree symbolized and how we should treat it. We have had discussions ranging from curious and respectful, to tearful heartbreaking arguments. We have felt our way through studying the tree. We have posed several different options of what to do with the tree. And eventually we will act as a community to respond to the tree that we feel in the darkness.
But the tree that seems so central and so important, the tree that has captured our attention is only one piece of the elephant in our midst. You see, just like in the story, before one of the blind men reached out to touch the elephant’s leg and felt a tree there, another blind man came along and reached out his hand and felt a rope. We haven’t had many conversations about ropes in our Fellowship. But we have had many deep conversations about what ties us together, what creates the boundaries of our community, what we will and will not allow to come into our community.
The language of metaphor can only go so far, so let me name this publicly. Just a couple of years ago, the leadership of our congregation had to make the very painful decision to tell a member of our community that she was no longer welcomed here. Because of disrespectful behavior to our staff, our facility, and our members, it was decided that we had to ask her to leave, permanently.
That was a heartbreaking time. It was a conflict that permeated the first years of my ministry with this congregation. It was very, very hard for our community, and the pain of that decision persists today. Two years ago many of us reached out into the darkness and found a rope there, a line that defined who we allowed in and who we kept out of our community. We talked and argued and cried over that decision. But the truth is that that moment, that rope, is only one more piece of an elephant that is still sitting in our sanctuary.
In the same way, still others have found a big unidentifiable floppy mass as they reached out and grabbed an elephant’s ear. Just imagine what that giant rough flappy squishy elephant ear would feel like to a blind person. It would be terribly hard to figure out what it was.
In just that way, some in our community are reaching out now and finding a big unidentifiable floppy mess as they try to grab a hold of our committee structures, bylaws and policies, and it is unsettling.
The truth is, we have not done a very good job at creating systems of accountability. Some of our committees exist in name only and it is unclear who is supposed to report to whom. We should have done this better. We, both, you the congregation, and I as your minister, we are both to blame for this shortcoming. So now, some folks are reaching out in the darkness and feeling this part of the elephant in our sanctuary, this big unidentifiable floppy mess of an ear. It is unsettling, but it is a problem with a clear solution that we all agree needs fixing.
For the past several years we have reached out to feel our way in this community. In the dark, we have come across several challenges, several mysteries that we have argued over. It is my deep conviction that these conflicts of the recent past and of today are part of a much larger elephant in our midst. There is an elephant in the room, a big one, that needs to be talked about.
These pieces of church life that come up for us as sources of disagreement are pieces of a bigger mystery. That mystery is who we are as a community, and who we want to be in the future. It may seem like a simple question, what is a church supposed to be? But I assure you, our answers to that question can be just as different as our answers about God.
So I leave you with a small challenge today. Think for yourself, what is your image of who we are as a community, and who should we be in the future. What does YOUR UUFLB look like, what does it sound like? How does it feel to you? Who are we as a community, and who should we be in the future.
And if you imagination allows, try looking through the eyes of someone else, maybe someone you know, maybe someone you make up in your head. Just try to imagine a completely different set of eyes as you approach this elephant. And try with me to imagine how someone else might think what this church is, and what it is supposed to be in the future.